As the lights go down, the legends kick in. In the dark, summoned up from some collective unconscious or a primitive genetic leftover, fears about an unseen world populate the mind joined by stories of all manner of bogeymen.
Spawned from mythology and religion, those tales told around tribal camp fires were the earliest version of paranormal popular culture long before radio programs, movies and reality-TV investigations. They tapped into the shared experiences of anyone who peered into the unexplained, and inspired the curious to seek out the truth in the shadows.
Over time, society evolved and science resolved some mysteries, but questions about old fears persisted. What’s out there and what is to be done about the undead, the haunting dead, the walking dead and the deadly living things in the water, forests and outer space?
So it’s a matter of fear and curiosity; for me, that speaks to why the paranormal has not just stuck around in the pop-culture sphere, but has actually become more mainstream.
Despite how much we figure out about our world and universe, there is a nagging awareness that there are some things that haven’t been sufficiently explained. Pardon my appropriation of NBC’s “The More You Know” jingle, but the more we know, the more we realize there’s a lot we don’t know.
Electric lighting, ADT security systems, shingled-roofs and aluminum siding — and all other cozy, protective modern home amenities — be damned, it is those old fears that spring to mind when the house settling at night sounds a little too similar to mysterious footsteps.
There is a maxim that there are no atheists in foxholes. I would add there are no skeptics alone at night at Roswell, Eastern State Penitentiary, or in the New Jersey Pine Barrens; there is the afraid and the curious.
Still, paranormal entertainment is clearly nothing new, and its predominance and acceptance in popular culture has always ebbed and flowed. However, there’s little disagreement that we exist in a period of paranormal pop culture overdrive.
When it comes to strong ratings, box office receipts and top spots on bestseller lists, the entertainment industry can’t do much better than paranormal investigators, a bespectacled boy wizard or a vampire who sparkles in the sun — although lately those three have major competition from zombies, werewolves, aliens, monsters, psychics, demons, and even more vampires.
By my count, there are about a half dozen new paranormal reality-TV programs in production. There are no fewer than 14 paranormal shows appearing on the primetime lineup and nine supernatural silver screen releases this fall. Additionally, the genre is robust with a multitude of themed albums, video games, comic books, blogs, publications, and online chat shows.
Every year another poll is released that confirms why there is an audience for this stuff. If the numbers from Baylor University and Harris Interactive surveys are to be believed, an overwhelming amount of Americans have some belief in the supernatural; and many even claim to have had a personal experience or two. And in my opinion, those believers require an entertainment outlet and community, or paranormal support group, to curb fears and sate curiosity.
Before online social media, Craigslist or Meetup.com, finding a paranormal community was limited by social mores and geography. While many investigative groups existed before 2004, it was the wild success of the relatively new networking site MySpace that permitted paranormal enthusiasts to transcend the borders of their town or avoid potential embarrassment from judgmental PTA members. A paradigm shift occurred where groups could gather and ghost hunt, and attend paranormal conventions, and feel secure knowing they were with like-minded individuals.
Online social media, coupled with the amazingly serendipitous arrival of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network (formerly known as the Sci-Fi Channel) during the same timeframe, ignited a new level of discourse. Although the reality-TV show starring the blue-collar Roto-Rooter plumbers did give a significant boost to the mainstreaming of the paranormal, it and MySpace weren’t the sole reason.
Between 2004 and 2005, the Harry Potter book and film franchise was also at its peak, and other paranormal pop culture heavy hitters were making their entrance. Supernatural, Ghost Whisperer, Medium, and Lost made it to television. The Twilight Saga began and Sookie Stackhouse was only on her third vampire adventure. The paranormal investigator Hellboy transitioned from comics to movies, and the zombie genre came back to life with Shaun of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Satan was even paid his due with The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
So the paranormal became mainstream this time because fear, curiosity, the Internet, and excellent timing. The entertainment industry was more than happy to keep feeding paranormal content to audiences clamoring for more.
No doubt an overexposure of paranormal pop culture will likely set in sooner or later, and it will recede into the shadows once more. But as long as those old fears linger, along with the curiosity to explore the unknown, the stories won’t go away and the paranormal will eventually return again to the mainstream.