July 9, 2010
They're not in search of the paranormal, but rather in quest of people who believe in the paranormal -- and that makes for some abnormal research.
Besides tagging along with Sasquatch seekers in Sam Houston National Forest near Conroe in 2006, the colleagues/cronies have spent the night in reputedly haunted houses, interviewed people who say they have seen UFOs and joined folks who visit palm readers to learn whether romance is in their future.
Mencken and Bader, along with co-researcher Dr. Joseph Baker, assistant professor of sociology at East Tennessee State University, tell about their findings in the book Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture.
The 272-page book -- slated for release at Halloween -- chronicles the types of paranormal experiences, beliefs and activities claimed by some Americans; whether those who hold unusual beliefs are unconventional in other ways; and how/whether those beliefs tie in with religion.
Along with conducting thousands of interviews, the trio drew from findings of the Baylor Religion Survey -- a multi-year national random sample delving into religious values, practices and behavior.
In a recent interview, Mencken and Bader talked about the project, which they began in 2006.
Q: How did you all get interested in the paranormal and the people who believe in it?
Bader: I've been studying them for about 20 years, since I rode around with a guy looking for Bigfoot.
Mencken: I grew up in Charleston, S.C., and there are a bunch of stories from there. A good friend of mine makes a living giving haunted history tours. My parents claimed we had a haunted house. It was never really clear what you were supposed to see and when; it was that you knew it when you saw it. That was part of Old South culture. There are a lot of good stories but not a systematic analysis of clean data from a reliable source. A book on statistics on Bigfoot and UFOs would be interesting, but we felt we needed a personal touch. We got the data and thought, "We can do this better than anybody else."
Q: How did you approach the people who believe in the paranormal?
Mencken: We were very honest with them that neither of us was believers or had had an experience, but we were interested in their experience. The first time, I was a little spooked. Some were there trying to convert you - but that's not why we were there.
Bader: You're as respectful as you would be of anyone. It's one thing to laugh on CNN, but you're not going to giggle in their faces. For us, it doesn't matter if Bigfoot exists. That might be kind of cool, but that's not our purpose. What we want to know is how does this affect these people's lives? Do other people make fun? We're not Geraldo Rivera.
Q: Who are the most memorable people you've run into in your research?
Bader: There's a woman named Laura, a retired postal worker from Washington State, who is one of those who has experienced everything. She's from another planet, she's reincarnated from another universe, she's an astrologer, and she's a palm reader who believes in Bigfoot. She just sees the world differently. She saw no conflict between those things; she just sees the world as a mysterious place. We all share a soul, and she has a memory of people sacrificing mammoths.
Mencken: I think the Bigfoot guys were most memorable. They're normal guys, but they've had an experience in the woods that caused them to seek more information.
Q: What did you discover in your research?
Bader: One general finding is that there is no general finding. There's the idea that people who believe in the paranormal are unconventional, that you'd know if you saw one, that there's the guy that has the tinfoil on his head or mental illness. But the paranormal is becoming more and more normal. We contrast normal guys like Bigfoot hunters with Laura and people who wear flowing robes and talk about Chakra. More and more people who seem conventional are spending their lives exploring it. The more things they believe in, the less conventional they are.
Q: How does religion figure into the paranormal?
Mencken: One of the most interesting things about religion is that not all Christians feel the same about the paranormal. A friend of mine who's a Baptist minister was very negative across the board. The people who believe literally in the Bible don't have room for it. More conservative denominations of congregations are less likely to believe in the paranormal; those with more liberal backgrounds are more likely. Spiritualists are strong supporters of the cosmic, hard-core paranormal. To atheists, it's all hooey.
Q: How do believers in the paranormal see themselves?
Bader: I think these guys we spent time with looking for Bigfoot think, "Either Bigfoot is real or I'm crazy." It threatens their identity. They'd be quite happy if they found it (Bigfoot). They won't be looking for giant beavers or woodpeckers. They've got this tension in their life. You'd think Bigfoot people would understand people who believe in UFOs. But they think, `Those UFO people are crazy.' They don't see themselves as similar to people reading their auras.
Q: What are your hopes for the book?
Bader: This is meant to be read by anybody. We didn't want to do something only 30 academics would read. Go look in the back of the book, and you'll choke on the statistics and methods. We're extremely confident about the statistical analysis that's weighted. But we hide the ugly tables in the back.
Mencken: It's very user-friendly. People that believe in the paranormal can read it and not be offended. A preacher could use it. And a hard-core atheist would be interested.
Q: So what was the conclusion of the Bigfoot hunters after your night in the forest?
Bader: The hunters did think Bigfoot was likely around. They found a footprint they suspect was Bigfoot's.
The Baylor Religion Survey
Here are some results from The Baylor Religion Survey of 2006, which included 1,721 nationwide respondents.
75 percent believe alternative treatment is as effective as traditional medicine.
52 percent believe dreams can sometimes foretell the future or reveal hidden truths.
37 percent believe places can be haunted.
28 percent believe it's possible to influence the world through the mind alone (telekinesis).
25 percent believe some UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds.
20 percent believe it's possible to communicate with the dead.
18 percent believe creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science.
13 percent believe in astrologers, palm readers, tarot cards, fortune tellers and psychics.
Source: Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion and The Gallup Organization
Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321.