Today, no one will be surprised to see ghosts and goblins on the loose.
But for some Americans, ghosts — along with extraterrestrials, Bigfoot and UFOs — aren't the stuff of seasonal sightings or tabloid teasers. They're real — as real as a resurrected Jesus and a devious Satan are to millions.
In the United States, though, not all supernatural beliefs are accepted equally. How people seem to parse the paranormal depends in part on religious belief and practice, a survey from Baylor University shows.
"If you are a strong Christian who goes to church a lot, you will wholeheartedly endorse the Christian supernatural beliefs but you will stay away from the psychics, the Bigfoots," explained Baylor sociology professor Carson Mencken.
"But if you are someone who reports pretty high levels of conventional Christian belief but doesn't practice that faith, doesn't go to church very often, if at all, you're also very likely to hold other types of paranormal or supernatural beliefs. You're going to believe in a little bit of everything."
Denomination and an individual's self-identification as spiritual versus religious can play a role in such thinking as well, according to Baylor's research.
"Catholics actually score pretty high on paranormal beliefs, which if you look at Catholic theology, that kind of makes sense," said Mencken, citing the role of apparitions, such as those of the Virgin Mary in places like Lourdes or Fatima.
"Most religion, traditionally, approaches faith or approaches God and the divine as something which is a realm that is greater than what we understand or can deal with and is filled with surprises," said Christopher J. Viscardi, chairman of the division of philosophy and theology at the Jesuit Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. "There is a
broad range, including the paranormal, including the supernatural."
Evangelicals, meanwhile, are much more likely to be in line with conventional supernatural thought and much less likely to believe in traditional paranormal ideas, said Mencken, who noted that conservative Christian congregations tend to be at odds with secular culture and "keep a pretty tight rein on their members."
Overall, though, "paranormal beliefs are out there," Mencken said. Close to 50 percent of the population believes that places can be haunted, he said, while 20 percent of the population believes in the ability of psychics.
According to Christine Wicker, author of "Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America," such beliefs have gone mainstream.
"My reading of history, American history and world history, is that it's a phenomenon of human nature, especially when there is anxiety and fear, or when there's a lack of spiritual depth, a phenomenon to look for things that will either respond to that anxiety or fill that emptiness," Viscardi said.
Wicker, meanwhile, posited that one factor behind the "resurgence of magical thought" is "widespread disappointment with organized religion." She cited Daniel Maguire, an ethics professor at Marquette University who said belief in the great faiths is collapsing.
"People are looking for something to replace them, much as they did in the first century as Christianity began to rout paganism. Now it seems to be the other way around," she wrote.
Cecil Taylor, dean of the School of Christian Studies at the Southern Baptist-affiliated University of Mobile, put it this way: "In a post-Christian age, when the Christian consensus is removed, all sorts of paganism rushes in to takes its place. And I view most of these things as a renaissance of paganism."
Some of it, though, may simply be a matter of semantics.
While Mencken can't say for sure, he would hypothesize that it's more likely the case that where one person perceives a guardian angel (55 percent of Americans say they've been protected by one), another may see a UFO (24 percent say UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds and 27 percent are undecided).
But, Mencken said: "If you say you believe in UFOs and you've been abducted by a UFO, you'll get a different response than if you tell people you believe in the resurrection of the body of Christ. And that's the drawing line there, is to what extent society has defined a set of beliefs as OK/conventional versus defined them as kind of out there or
kooky or unconventional."
"It's a function of a variety of social processes," he said, "where one set of beliefs has become acceptable and normative over time."
Taylor identified another determining factor: scripture.
"Evangelicals would look at the Bible to validate experience," he said. "We check the Bible to see: Is this within the realm of possibility? Is this validated by scripture? Because there are many powers, there are many beings in the world, spiritual as well as
physical. There are angels, both good and bad, if we're to believe the Bible, and I do. And so simply the fact that you have an experience doesn't mean it's with God, and so you must check the Bible, which is the norm, as validation for any experience you may claim."
Finally, while belief and practice tend to play a role in shaping views toward the non-Christian paranormal, geography matters too.
Mencken noted that generally speaking, Southerners aren't much interested in the occult.
"Now if we were to look only at Christian paranormal beliefs — if we were to look at who believes in Satan and who believes in hell — you would find that the South scores pretty high on that," Mencken said.
"But again, it is paranormal in the sense that it defies any scientific explanation."
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Campbell writes for The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.)