Most of us have considered the possibility of the paranormal before—was that creak a ghost or the house settling in? Was that a shadow or Bigfoot? And who was flickering the lights—the Hash Slinging Slasher or Nosferatu? But according to sociologists at Chapman University, a sizable 52% of America actually believes in this spooky stuff.
These results are part of the second annual Chapman Survey of American Fears, collected from a representative sample of 1,541 Americans over the age of 18. The broader goal of the survey—which explores how much the country fears everything from natural disasters to vaccinations to the paranormal—is to determine both the causes and consequences of these fears.
“We’re trying to understand, over time, what fear does to society," lead researcher Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman, told me over the phone, including "how it makes people behave, how it affects their neighborhoods, how it affects the things they do and the choices they make."
Notably, the thing that scared most Americans this year was corruption of government officials—a whopping 81.2% of participants said they were at least slightly afraid of corruption in Washington. After that, 79.5% said they feared cyberterrorism, and 77.9% feared corporate tracking of personal information. Also, robots. More than 52% of the respondents were at least slightly afraid of “robots that can make their own decisions and take their own actions,” and 60.6% were at least a little afraid of robots replacing people in the workplace.
Fine, fine, robots are scary—but what about the really scary stuff? The ~paranormal~ stuff? (Cue theremin music.) According to Bader, more Americans now believe in various spooky concepts, from g-g-g-ghosts to extraterrestrial creatures. More than 41% of respondents said they believe in ghosts, and 26.5% said they believe the living and the dead can communicate with each other (though I always thought the Ouija board seemed a bit unsophisticated and rude tbh. But, then again, I’m not dead).
Meanwhile, 18.1% said they believe that aliens have come to earth in modern times, and 20.3% said aliens definitely visited in ancient times, which could explain Easter Island, the pyramids of Giza, or maybe even the white cisgender patriarchy.
(Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the participants feared these creatures—although 26.8% did admit they were at least slightly afraid of ghosts.)
So why do so many Americans #believe?
“We are finding, in general, in our survey—in both paranormal stuff and in fear—that people are enormously influenced by the things they’re watching on TV and the stuff they’re consuming on the internet,” Bader told me. “People who watch a lot of true crime TV tend to be a lot more afraid of crime. People who are watching a lot of paranormal TV tend to believe in the paranormal a lot more. Part of it is just simply exposure."
But just because a person believes in the paranormal doesn’t necessarily mean she believes in all of it, Bader said—and in fact, paranormal folks tend to be tribalistic. For example, you may have an aunt who strongly believes that ghosts exist, but if you tell her you saw a UFO, she’ll think you’re crazy. Or someone might believe in Bigfoot but think that ghosts are just too far a rational reach.
“That’s one thing we did not expect to find—that people can be very attached to certain paranormal beliefs, even though they face skepticism and people not believing them," Bader said. And yet, "they aren’t willing to extend that sort of sympathy to other people."
Sure, if this was an after-school special, I’d probably end on some note like, ‘The only thing scarier than ghosts and Bigfoot and aliens is intolerance of others’ beliefs." But honestly, I’m a little too busy covering my apartment in Dominos garlic bread and nailing horseshoes to my front door to get into that.