August 22, 2008
Monsters, Ghosts and Gods: Why We Believe
Monsters are everywhere these days, and belief in them is as strong
as ever. What's harder to believe is why so many people buy into hazy
evidence, shady schemes and downright false reports that perpetuate
myths that often have just one ultimate truth: They put money in the
pockets of their purveyors.
The bottom line, according to several interviews with people who study these things: People want to believe, and most simply can't help it.
"Many people quite simply just want to believe," said Brian Cronk, a
professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University. "The
human brain is always trying to determine why things happen, and when
the reason is not clear, we tend to make up some pretty bizarre
A related question: Does belief in the paranormal have anything to do with religious belief?
The answer to that question is decidedly nuanced, but studies point
to an interesting conclusion: People who practice religion are
typically encouraged not to believe in the paranormal, but rather to
put their faith in one deity, whereas those who aren't particularly
active in religion are more free to believe in Bigfoot or consult a
"Christians and New Agers, paranormalists, etc. all have one thing
in common: a spiritual orientation to the world," said sociology
Professor Carson Mencken of Baylor University.
A tale last week by three men who said they have remains of Bigfoot in a freezer
was reported by many Web sites as anywhere from final proof of the
creature to at least a very compelling case to keep the fantasy ball
rolling and cash registers ringing for Bigfoot trinkets and tourism
(all three men involved make money off the belief in this creature).
Even mainstream media treated a Friday press conference about the
"finding" as news.
Reactions by the public ranged from skeptical curiosity to blind faith.
"I believe they do exist but I'm not sure about this," said one reader reacting to a story on LiveScience
that cast doubt the claim. "I guess we will find out ... if this is on
the up and up," wrote another. "However, that said, I know they exist."
A subsequent test on the supposed Bigfoot found nothing but the DNA of humans and an opossum, a small, cat-like creature.
Also last week, in Texas there was yet another sensational yet
debunkable sighting of chupacabra, a beast of Latin-American folklore.
The name means "goat sucker." In this case, law enforcement bought into
the hooey with an apparent wink and nod.
Ellie Carter, a patrol trainee with the DeWitt County sheriff's
office, saw the beast and was, of course, widely quoted. "It was this -
thing, looking right at us," she said. "I think that's a chupacabra!"
After watching a video of the beast taken by a sheriff's deputy,
biologist Scott Henke of Texas A&M University said, "It's a dog for
sure," according to a story on Scientific American's Web site.
Meanwhile, the sheriff did nothing to tamp down rampant speculation,
expressing delight that he might have a monster on his hands. "I love
this for DeWitt County," said Sheriff Jode Zavesky, who would
presumably be just as thrilled to let Dracula or a werewolf run free.
With that kind of endorsement and the human propensity to believe in
just about anything, it's clear that Bigfoot and chupacabra are just
two members in a cast of mythical characters and dubious legends and
ideas will likely never go away.
In a 2006 study, researchers found a surprising number of college students believe
in psychics, witches, telepathy, channeling and a host of other
questionable ideas. A full 40 percent said they believe houses can be
Why are people so eager to accept flimsy and fabricated evidence in
support of unlikely and even outlandish creatures and ideas? Why is the
paranormal realm, from psychic predictions to UFO sightings, so
alluring to so many?
The gods must be crazy
Since people have been people, experts figure, they have believed in the supernatural, from gods to ghosts and now every sort of monster in between.
"While it is difficult to know for certain, the tendency to believe
in the paranormal appears to be there from the beginning," explained
Christopher Bader, a Baylor sociologist and colleague of Mencken. "What
changes is the content of the paranormal. For example, very few people
believe in faeries and elves these days. But as belief in faeries
faded, other beliefs, such as belief in UFOs, emerged to take their
Figuring out why people are this way is a little trickier.
"It is an artifact of our brain's desire to find cause and effect,"
Cronk, the psychology professor, said in an email interview. "That
ability to predict the future is what makes humans 'smart' but it also
has side effects like superstitions [and] belief in the paranormal."
"Humans first started believing in the supernatural because they
were trying to understand things they couldn't explain," says Benjamin
Radford, a book author, paranormal investigator and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "It's basically the same process as mythology:
At one point people didn't understand why the sun rose and set each
day, so they suggested that a chariot pulled the sun across the
Before modern scientific explanations of germ theory, explained Radford, who writes the "Bad Science" column for LiveScience,
people didn't understand how diseases could travel from one person to
another. "They didn't understand why a child was stillborn, or why a
drought occurred, so they came to believe that such events had
supernatural causes," he said.
"All societies have invoked the supernatural to explain things
beyond their control and understanding, especially good and bad
events," Radford said. "In many places - even today - people believe
that disasters or bad luck is caused by witches or curses."
Which raises the bigger question: With science having answered so many questions in the past couple centuries, why do paranormal beliefs remain so strong?
Related to religion?
Sometimes the belief in curses crosses paths with religion, as was
the case in 2005 when televangelist John Hagee (whose endorsement was
solicited and received by presidential hopeful John McCain) blamed
Hurricane Katrina on God's wrath for a gay parade that had been
scheduled for the Monday of the storm's arrival.
"I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to
God, and they are - were recipients of the judgment of God for that,"
Hagee said at the time, reiterating the belief in 2006.
That might lead one to assume religion and paranormal beliefs are intertwined.
But in a 2004 survey, at the researchers at Baylor found just the opposite.
"Paranormal beliefs are very strongly negatively related to religious belief," study team member Rod Stark said this week.
Another study, of 391 U.S. college students done in 2000, found that
participants who did not believe in Protestant doctrine were most
likely to believe in reincarnation, contact with the dead, UFOs,
telepathy, prophecy, psychokinesis, or healing. Believers were the
least likely to buy into the paranormal. "This may partly reflect
opinions of Christians in the samples who take biblical sanctions
against many 'paranormal' activities seriously," the Wheaton College
Cronk, the psychologist, did a small survey of 80 college students
and found no connection between religiosity and paranormal belief.
But a 2002 study in Canada did find a correlation between religious
beliefs and paranormal beliefs, Cronk notes. He figures that among
other explanations, Canadians may not have the same belief systems as
"My guess is that religiosity has a lot to do with how you were
raised, and less to do with genetics," Cronk said. "Those people who
may have a high genetic susceptibility to 'faith-based knowledge' may
end up being highly religious or may end up having belief in the
paranormal depending on how they were raised. Those people less
susceptible to that method of forming beliefs may still end up being
highly religious if they were raised in a religious family."
Religion vs. paranormal
Mencken, the Baylor sociologist, says sacrifice and stigma (for
holding ideas outside the group norm) keep the paranormal at bay among
the highly religious. He has two papers forthcoming that are based on a national survey of 1,700 people.
The first, to be published in the journal Sociology of Religion in 2009, reveals this:
"Among Christians, those who attend church very often (and are
exposed to stigma and sacrifice within their congregations) are least
likely to believe in the paranormal," Mencken told LiveScience. "Conversely,
those Christians who do not attend church very often (maybe once or
twice a year) are the most likely to hold paranormal beliefs."
A third group, which he calls naturalists, do not hold supernatural views, Christian or paranormal.
Another study to published in December in the Review of Religious Research,
shows that those who go to church "are much less likely to consult
horoscopes, visit psychics, purchase New Age items," and so on, Mencken
said. "However, among those Christians who do not attend church, there
is a much higher level of participation in these phenomena."
Educated to believe
Profiling the typical Bigfoot believer turns out to be as
challenging as determining the scientific methodology of a psychic,
"Perhaps amazingly, [paranormal beliefs] are not related at all to
education," Stark said. "Ph.D.s are as likely as high school dropouts
to believe in Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, etc."
The 2006 study of college students, done by Bryan Farha at Oklahoma
City University and Gary Steward Jr. of the University of Central
Oklahoma, reached a similar conclusion. Belief in the paranormal - from
astrology to communicating with the dead - increases during college,
rising from 23 percent among freshmen to 31 percent in seniors and 34
percent among graduate students.
Bader, the sociologist at Baylor, and his colleagues teamed up with
the Gallup organization to conduct a national survey of 1,721 people in
2005 and found nearly 30 percent think it is possible to influence the
physical world through the mind alone (another 30 percent were
undecided on that point). More than 20 percent figure it's possible to
communicate with the dead. Nearly 40 percent believe in haunted houses.
Asked if "creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science," 18.8 percent agreed while 25.9 percent were undecided.
In a remote Himalayan village, on the other hand, belief in Bigfoot's cousin, the yeti, is seen by some as a sign of ignorance.
Today's ubiquitous and often one-sided, promotional coverage of the
paranormal, both on the Internet and TV, perpetuate myths and folklore
as well or better than any ancient storyteller. Fiction and belief
masquerade as fact and news, feeding the 24/7 appetite of the easily
Scientists are left with an impossible task: proving something does
not exist. You can prove a rock is there. You can't prove that Bigfoot
or a ghost or the god of thunder is not there. Bigfoot paraphernalia
purveyors and cash-cow psychics know this well.
"Many paranormalists claim that their powers only work sometimes, or
that they don't work if there is a 'non-believer' in the room," Cronk
Or, in the case of the unsupportive DNA testing on Bigfoot last
week, the top proponent, Tom Biscardi (who recently produced a film
about Bigfoot and might be said to have an interest in garnering press
coverage), simply dodged the mythbusting bullet by claiming the DNA
samples might have been contaminated.
Money motivates even the law to look the other way.
Regarding the chupacabra "sighting" last week in Cuero, Texas: "It's
amazing," said Zavesky, DeWitt County sheriff. "We still don't know
what it is."
Of course his county, specifically the town of Cuero, has been dubbed the Chupacabra Capital of the World and benefits by monster tourism.
So while a sheriff might well be concerned if he thinks there's a
goat-sucking, menace in town, Zavesky is in no hurry to catch the beast
and debunk the myth. "It has brought a lot of attention to us," he
said. "We're not near ready to put this one to bed yet."