How I Became Interested in the Paranormal

By John Craton

Defining exactly when and why I became interested in the study of the paranormal is difficult to say because I have maintained an interest in these phenomena almost since I can first remember. I can recall as early as age 10 or so being caught up in the study of extrasensory perception, which was all the rage at the time, and I suppose that was but one step that led to a further interest in all things unexplained. And, of course, as a youngster I was like most children in being fascinated by any kind of ghost story, whether allegedly true or not.

I cannot lay claim, as many people do, to having had a large number of unusual experiences in childhood that led to a full-blown interest in paranormal activity. There was one seemingly small incident, however, that may have acted as a catalyst for further study on my part, and I will describe it below. At the time it happened I didn’t consider it really all that life-changing, but looking back I suppose it did spark enough curiosity that I later looked into strange phenomena with a great deal more interest.

Although I cannot now recall the names of many books, I do remember reading several works on various paranormal phenomena while a youngster, and these included books about things as diverse as ESP, ghosts, werewolves, and vampires. One of the authors I remember specifically was Hans Holzer, and I recall reading quite a few of his books about ghost-hunting. Holzer was quite an entertaining writer, but in retrospect I believe what interested me most about his books was the history he provided for each setting.

Indeed, it likely was my interest in history itself that dovetailed with and encouraged my study of the paranormal, especially of ghosts and apparitions. When I was young, my grandmother lived with us. She grew up before there were telephones, electricity, and automobiles, and I always loved hearing her tell stories of her youth, especially when she recalled events told to her by even earlier relatives who remembered the War Between the States. It probably was listening to her recount events from that earlier time that developed my keen interest in history, and I was fascinated by what life was like for people back then. Ever since my youth I have wondered what it would be like to have lived in earlier times, and as Holzer (among others) would go into infinite detail describing the lifetime of some of the spirits he allegedly communicated with, he held my attention quite solidly.

Needless to say, as a youngster I was a rather firm believer in almost everything I read. But to put the skeptical reader’s mind at ease, allow me to say that I did eventually grow up. Much of what I read back then I know now was total bunkum — entertaining bunkum, but bunkum nonetheless — and while I cannot say I am a total unbeliever in the paranormal, I do now maintain a healthy skepticism while still keeping an open mind.

That open mind probably stems from another author I got into a few years later, Charles Fort. I well remember reading his Book of the Damned and being utterly captivated by it. (I still subscribe to The Fortean Times to this day.) What I most admired about Fort was not only his cataloging of innumerable unexplained events, but also his balance of skepticism and open-mindedness regarding them. This tradition is maintained in the FT today. While presenting scores of obscure, bizarre, and unexplained events, it doesn’t simply accept their legitimacy on face value but merely catalogs them. Further investigation will shed more light on whether or not they bear any credibility.

But returning to my youth, I must admit that things such as ESP and other paranormal phenomena were a bit more in the popular psyche back then as serious research in these areas was being done essentially for the first time utilizing scientific method. Nearly everyone my age had at least a passing interest in these things, possibly because it is something that fascinated young people anyway, but also probably because these things were in the news. But while most of my colleagues lost interest over the years, and while my interest certainly has waned a bit, there was one incident that may have kept the spark alive for me.

When I was eleven years old, I recall one afternoon when a group of us boys was playing in a vacant field across the street from my school. This was an area where we did not usually play, and I do not remember why we were there on this occasion, but that was where we’d ended up. While we were playing in the field we began hearing large rocks landing on the ground around us. At first we thought probably other neighborhood kids were throwing rocks at us, but looking around we could see no one else, child or adult. Besides, from the sound these stones made as they landed, we could tell they were far too heavy for anyone (much less a child) to throw. I do not remember exactly how many we heard fall, but there were several. And to this day I still can hear the sound they made: a split second before they thudded into the earth we could hear them crash into the tops of the waist-high dry weeds in the vacant lot. Oddly, we never saw any of these rocks, either falling or on the ground, but only could hear them as they landed. And none of us was struck by any of these projectiles. Nevertheless, after hearing several of them fall and seeing no one who may have been catapulting them towards us, we decided to leave. We talked about going back in a day or two to see if we could find any of the rocks and to see if we could tell where they had come from (from the way they hit, it sounded as though they were falling straight down), but we never did. I don’t recall that we ever went back to that lot, though it is still there, and still vacant, to this very day. I suppose we eventually dismissed the event to overactive imaginations, but if so it would have been an example of some form of mass hallucination as all of us heard the sounds of rocks falling that day.

I do not recall that the event made that much of an impression on me at the time, but I suppose somewhere in my subconscious I always wanted to try and find out what on earth happened that day. Perhaps that is one reason I continued to read and investigate unexplained phenomena. It is just something that fascinates me, and has all my life. I’ve always felt there are many things in this world that have not yet been explained, either by science or by any other satisfactory means, and rather than dismissing them out of hand (“damning” them, as Charles Fort would say), I feel it important to try to ascertain just what these things are all about.

As said above, as a youngster (and quite gullible at that age), I tended to accept many of the things I read at face value, and that came to include not only the idea of ghosts, poltergeists (which was my only explanation for the falling-stone episode), and ESP, but also occultic magic, UFOs and extraterrestrial beings. I later came to see most of these things as claptrap when they could not stand against solid scientific inquiry, but I will allow that there still are more things in this world than are dreamt of in our philosophy, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

In high school I remember continuing to read a great deal on these subjects and even writing several reports as school assignments on unexplained phenomena. Naturally, as a heady teen, I thought I had good explanations for all these things (seeing as I believed in them wholeheartedly), but it was likely during that time that I began to develop a more scientific mind. I also began to weigh a lot of what I read about against my Christian belief system. I was brought up in a rather fundamentalist Christian church that taught against the idea of ghosts still hanging about the planet and that miracles — that is, paranormal events — ended in the first century. While my church looked askance at the stuff I enjoyed reading and talking about (though I do not remember anyone ever actually condemning me for studying it) I continued delving deeper and deeper into a lot of these things, even to the point of dabbling somewhat in the occult (Francis Barrett’s white magic, to be specific). But it didn’t take long for me to give that up because (1) I could find no way to harmonize indulging any form of occultism with Scripture and (2) I started finally becoming objective enough to see that not everything I was reading was factually correct.

My interest was strong enough, however, that at one point in my high school career I thought I’d like to become a professional parapsychologist and actually tried looking into universities that offered such degrees. While I was slowly becoming more skeptical, I still wanted to study these weird phenomena from an objective, scientific viewpoint and perhaps be on the cutting edge of explaining a lot of the heretofore unexplained to the world. Perhaps it was when I found out that most “universities” that offered degrees in this discipline were unaccredited that I started having very serious doubts about all these things.

And, since I am writing specifically about my longstanding interest in the paranormal, it may sound as though this subject consumed my life as a teen. That is far from reality. Although I maintained a deep interest in the subject, I was more interested in music, religion, and girls (I was a semi-normal teenage boy, after all) and kept paranormal studies more as a hobby than anything. Plus the fact that girls did like talking about it, after all!

I remember continuing my interest, though to a lesser degree, in undergrad. Though I did not do much leisure reading in college, I did manage to work through at least a couple books on the unexplained (one I recall buying at the airport while waiting for a colleague to arrive — an excellent book that I’d love to read again, but one I since have lost and cannot remember either title or author). Over the ensuing years life consumed far too much of my time to do more than read the occasional book (or Fortean Times magazine), and by becoming far more scientifically minded (although I am a composer by profession, I became a clinical audiologist by training) my skepticism of many paranormal claims became much more acute. At one point in my early adulthood I became a total skeptic and eschewed all notions of the paranormal altogether; so while now I remain very cautious about accepting something as paranormal before all normal avenues of explanation are first ruled out, I do endeavor to remain open-minded enough to admit to other possibilities.

I think what may have softened my total rejection of the paranormal was, ironically, The Skeptical Inquirer. I subscribed to that periodical initially because it does present evidences to debunk fraudulent claims of the paranormal. But it goes well beyond that. One of its chief contributors when I subscribed was the renowned skeptic James Randi. Randi has done remarkable work demonstrating a number of psychic hoaxes throughout his career, but Randi also is a confirmed atheist who believes in a closed universe. His belief system does not even allow for the possibility of anything outside of the physical universe. As I am a Christian, and also a scientist, I see that construct as both anti-religion and anti-science. For science to be genuine it must operate on the assumption that anything is possible. If we begin by stating the paranormal cannot happen, then we are not being fully objective. (It is no more scientific to rule out a paranormal explanation of an event than it is to assign the term “paranormal” to an event without first investigating normal alternatives. Neither is being open-minded because each has closed itself to a possible interpretation of events.)

So reading Randi and other confirmed atheists in the SI had the opposite effect on me than was intended by their writings — I felt that if they couldn’t even admit the possibility of a supernatural being (God) which I could, then perhaps I should allow the possibility for the paranormal to explain some things that even yet I still don’t fully understand.

With everything balancing out, I came to realize that indeed most of what I’d earlier considered paranormal either did have normal explanations or were thoroughly and intentionally bogus; but there were nonetheless some things that could not yet be explained away by either of these criteria. While not admitting that there are paranormal events occurring round us, I cannot say beyond a reasonable doubt that they do not occur. Some things so far simply defy any reasonable explanation, and these are the things that still intrigue me.

For some time I have wanted to form a team of objective investigators to do the type of field study we often read about and which has now become a popular television event. But to date I’ve not done this for a number of reasons. First and perhaps most critically, I simply never have had the time. Now that my children are grown, perhaps I’ll eventually have some time to devote to this pursuit, but so far it simply hasn’t happened. Second, I would want the group to investigate in a scientific and objective manner and I have not yet found a group of similarly minded and/or trained individuals in my area to work with. And third, I would want the group to work within a Christian framework. And therein lies a major rub since many Christians reject all such investigations, feeling they are somehow occultic in nature and therefore prohibited activity. One must have a careful balance between that point of view and the point of view that accepts the use of occult practices in one’s investigation. Perhaps I’m setting my standards too high, but these are some of the criteria I have set.

And although this paper is specifically about how I became interested in the paranormal, I will mention briefly a passing interest in cryptozoology as well. While the two are often considered together, they are not at all in the same category since cryptozoology is the study of physical, material species that simply have not yet been cataloged and categorized. The two studies are alike only in the sense that they both involve things that have not yet been fully explained. If, for instance, someone someday captures, studies, and catalogs an actual chupacabra, there would be nothing supernatural or paranormal about that … it would mean only that we would have discovered and confirmed a new species of animal.

I have had only one experience with something that might fit into a cryptozoological framework, and it is rather tenuous. Nevertheless, since it was a somewhat frightening experience and quite memorable, I will recount it here:

One summer while I was in undergrad, I spent a few days with some cousins who were in Alabama visiting their grandparents who lived on a farm just outside of Wedowee. One evening after supper my two cousins and I decided to go for a walk along a dirt road that led into the forest. We walked perhaps a mile to a point where we were surrounded on both sides by thick trees. At that point the sun had just begun to set, so we decided it was time to turn round and head back home. While we were stopped briefly, we heard a strange cry from deep in the woods on one side. It was a sound unlike any that any of us had ever heard before, but we thought it probably was an owl or other similar bird. It sounded as though it came from about 100 yards or so from the road. One of my cousins, when he heard the shrill cry, whistled back to it in a similar fashion, more I think just to imitate the sound than anything. But the creature — whatever it was — replied! My cousin whistled again a few times, and each time the cry would come back from the trees, only gradually growing closer. By this time we were already walking back the way we’d come, and the creature was coming towards the road at an angle where we would intersect paths before very long. Since none of us were sure what kind of creature we were dealing with (as it got closer we could hear fundamental frequencies that indicated that this might be something large, especially as the sound seemed to be coming from about 8-10 feet off the ground), my cousin stopped whistling to it. It continued to cry out, however, and we could tell from the sound that it was getting closer and closer. We began to grow rather concerned as we had nothing with us to protect ourselves if this thing turned out to be a wildcat or something worse. When it sounded as though the creature was about 20-30 yards from the road (we still had seen nothing, only heard the cry — and it was growing much darker now that the sun had set) we came to the woods’ end where the road then ran next to a field. We heard the creature come to the very edge of the wood — it would not come out into the field — where it cried after us for some time in a very plaintive voice, as though it wanted us to come back. We were all quite glad to get back to the house where we could ask the grandmother what the creature was. None of us had ever heard a sound like it, but since she had lived in the area for nearly 80 years we were sure she would solve the mystery for us and let us know what we’d been trying to avoid encountering. But when we asked her if she’d heard the noise (she had) and what it was, she replied that she thought it was us making a strange noise in the wood as she had never heard a sound like it before in her life!

I still have no idea what we heard that night, whether owl, hawk, cat, or some unknown species. But whatever it was, the cry is still quite audible in my brain but one I have never heard the likes of before or since. Nor have I ever heard an animal that seemed to express the kind of lugubrious emotion we heard as it came to the edge of the wood, knowing that we were not stopping. It would be nice to know what we encountered that night, but I doubt we ever shall.

Aside from these two instances described in this little treatise (the falling stones and the strange animal cry), I cannot say I have had any other paranormal experiences in my life. I know that a lot of people become interested in paranormal investigations because they have a number of unusual events happen to them which they would like explained. But as anticlimactic as these may be, these are the only two I can relate. Still, it would be nice to know more about what actually happened.

The above was written on 22 March 2017. For some descriptions of subsequent events, click here

Copyright © 2017 by John Craton. All rights reserved.

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