Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

America's Love Affair With the Supernatural

The supernatural is much more than hearing things go bump in the night

Boo! Ghosts, psychics, and all other expressions of the supernatural are everywhere you look these days, in case you’ve been in a cave recently. The supernatural- phenomena that cannot be explained by natural laws or understood in terms of scientific knowledge- has deeply affected the trajectory of everyday life in America, revealing key insights about who we are as a people. Despite our reputation as a people of uncommon common sense, Americans have in fact had a long love affair with the supernatural. (Polls and surveys have consistently shown that most Americans believe in the paranormal, and iconic figures like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain were known to have spiritist “visions.”) The temptation to explore what lies beyond has been a powerful one, whether it is the ability to read people’s minds or have contact with those on “the other side.” Why are we so interested in things that are not “real,” i.e., things we can’t see, hear, or touch? This world is apparently not enough for us, something that warrants further investigation.

Most curiously, perhaps, the supernatural in America has increased in both volume and importance over the years rather than diminished. Given the ascent of science and technology over this same period of time, this is surprising and intriguing, as all expectations were for the logic and rationalism of the 20th century to crush the mystical and superstitious ways of the past. Instead, however, the supernatural has run on a parallel course with science and technology, the two seeming to feed off each other. The more we go down the scientific and technological rabbit hole, the more we appear to need the supernatural, in other words, the “primitiveness” and universality of the metaphysical satisfying some sort of basic human drive. Because it is inherently timeless and cross-cultural, the supernatural may once again emerge as our dominant religion, I believe, our desire to explain the explainable to get only that more intense in the 21st century.

Of course, Americans hardly have a monopoly on the supernatural. Mysticism of some sort is an enduring theme throughout history, a staple of most civilizations over thousands of years. The desire to explain the unexplainable and recognize the presence of a different and possibly higher plane of existence or consciousness is a universal dimension of the human experience, proof that the supernatural offers something of value to people and should be taken seriously. Belief in the supernatural obviously serves an important purpose, part of our never-ending quest to solve the mystery that is life itself. “Our minds are designed from the very start to think there are unseen patterns, forces, and essences inhabiting the world, and it is unlikely that any effort to get rid of supernatural beliefs, or the superstitious behaviors that accompany them, will be successful,” wrote Bruce Hood in his 2009 SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable, believing “these common beliefs and sacred values are essential in binding us together as a society because they help us to see ourselves connected to each other at a deeper level.”

Lawrence R. Samuel, Ph.D., is an American cultural historian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and was a Smithsonian Institution Fellow.

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